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Both Sides Now: Can the Final Three Pass Their 2012 Character 'Stress Tests'?

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By Mark Green

With 20 days to Christmas and 28 to the Caucus, Matalin and Rosen focus on 2012 by giving the Final Three (?) a political colonoscopy. Beyond their records, values, and views, what do critics say about Barack, Mitt and Newt that could be electorally damaging or even disqualifying? (Click below to hear the show.)

*On Obama's Alleged Weaknesses. Is the president an emotionally remote loner and/or elitest, as we hear Jon Meachem imply and Rick Perry assert?

Mary doesn't think so. "I connect to him and like him as a person," but she cautions that a) he still needs more "wisdom," and b) he shouldn't respond to criticism by going rhetorically over the top. Hilary notes that, while obviously not gushy, Obama can "connect" just fine with the kind of charisma that Kennedy and Reagan had (both of whom also were said by family, friends and staff to be "elusive"). As for Perry's snide observation that Obama hadn't struggled to succeed, Hilary dismisses it as "ridiculous" since, lacking pedigree and privilege, he worked hard to excel in school and life.

Is Obama more of a good talker than a good leader, as Governor Christie says of his Super Committee failure? Mary focuses on his lack of personal relationships on Capital Hill as a reason that he hasn't done more, citing President Clinton's better relationships there (OK, not counting impeachment). Hilary counters that Obama has been a very successful leader in very hard circumstances, as shown by Wall Street reform, health care reform, the Recovery Act, saving the auto industry, etc.

Romney has a favorite line in his stump that Obama is a nice guy "but way over his head." Can a guy who brained his way into Harvard Law School and then figured out how to beat Hillary Clinton and John McCain be considered a lightweight? Consensus alert! Mary agrees that he's very smart, and Hilary says that this critique "is just nonsense." Palin's and Bachmann's taunts that he can't speak well without a teleprompter are treated as unserious.

*On Romney's Alleged Flaws. We listen to Bret Baier's Fox interview with a petulant Romney about his many 180s. Are his shifting views on choice, gays, climate, and immigration just standard "flip-flops," or, as Brit Hume wonders, do they reflect an untrustworthy character? Mary acknowledges that he has at times been politically expedient but at least is going in the conservative direction and, if he becomes the nominee, "we'll get behind him and box him in to his stated positions."

Hilary is not as forgiving. She regards him as a "con man who will say or do anything to win" and a pants-on-fire liar for his ad implying that Obama said of his reelection campaign, "If we keep talking about the economy, we're going to lose." She agrees with Arianna that most of the mainstream media failed the test of good journalism by treating the ad as just another spat between campaigns rather than an outright falsehood.

Can he pass the in-your-living room, have-a-beer test? While Mary notes that he can appear "automaton-ish," she knows him as perfectly personable up close, though Rosen adds ambiguously that "he seems genuine in public, but it's fake." ("I do not love thee, Dr. Fell," goes the old English limerick, "the reason why I cannot tell.")

*On Gingrich's "Imperfections." Does he have a Bobby Knight problem of being just too temperamental, nasty, divisive, and pompous? We listen to him on Christian Broadcasting saying hat he'd been unfaithful to his wives in part because of "how passionately I felt about my country." He later adds, "I never said I was a perfect candidate" (which is literally true in that he never said it, though the not-perfect test is a pretty low bar that Jeffrey Dahmer could pass).

Hilary says that she hopes, really hopes, that his that-was-then, this-is-now apology tour (infidelities, climate change change, Ryan's "social engineering"...) works to sway GOP voters. As for Gingrich's brassy claim that he never lobbied Congress because he was a "celebrity ... earning $60,000 a speech," she sees him as a "crony capitalist ... who traded on his political connections to make money."

Mary discounts the money-grubbing criticism, given that voters think that all Washington politicians are opportunists (author's note: urging Freddy-Fannie executives to be jailed while on their payroll seems unusually opportunistic). Ms. Matalin does worry that Newt "seems to leave no thought unturned" and that while Republicans do have a good message next year, they can't be sure which messenger would show up if Newt were the nominee -- the "good Newt or the bad Newt," in Hilary's phrase.

Conclusions: Mary thinks that primary voters may well just focus on Gingrich's articulate conservatism and his historic GOP takeover of the House in 1994; Hilary thinks that general election voters will see him as a "classic rental politician" (George Will) who's not on their side, that side being the 99 percent. The Host agrees that though Gingrich seems to have only two gears, "attack" and "boast," 2012 will be more about policy than personality.

Also: just as the show is taped, four prominent journalists in effect agree that both Romney and Gingrich are seriously flawed candidates: see Joe Klein in Time, George Will in WashPo, Charles Krautheimer in WashPo, and Jeff Zeleny in The New York Times. Ms. Rosen wonders whether there's time for Huntsman to rise in New Hampshire.

*Quick Takes: Pepper Spray. Both women believe that it was appalling how the U.C. Davis police hosed down peaceful protestors with pepper spray, believing that it should only be used to contain violent people or crowds. Then there's also largely consensus on Barney Frank, who announced this week that he'd retire after 30 years in the House. Mary criticizes his record on Fannie and Freddy but likes his "acerbic, funny, Yankee personality." Hilary is "heartbroken" that he's leaving. She adores his sharp humor, like when he said that the problem with the Iraq war was "not our intelligence but our stupidity."

Mark Green is the creator and host of Both Sides Now, which is powered by the American Federation of Teachers.

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